Chinua Achebe challenges Joseph Conrad's novella depicting the looting of Africa, Heart of Darkness (1902) in his essay "An Image of Africa" (1975). Achebe's is an indignant yet solidly rooted argument that brings the perspective of a celebrated African writer who chips away at the almost universal acceptance of the work as "classic," and proclaims that Conrad had written "a bloody racist book" (Achebe 319). In her introduction in the Signet 1997 edition, Joyce Carol Oates writes, "[Conrad's] African natives are "dusty niggers," cannibals." Conrad [...] painfully reveals himself in such passages, and numerous others, as an unquestioning heir of centuries of Caucasian bigotry" (Oates 10). The argument seems to lie within a larger question; is the main character Charlie Marlow racist, and is Marlow an extension of Conrad's opinion?
Achebe says yes to both notions. He points to Marlow's speech about the Thames and the Congo as revealing his view of "Africa as "the other world," the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization," and notes the description of the Africans as "limbs [and] rolling eyes," or, in Conrad's words, "ugly" (315). When they are not incomprehensible "savages" or "brutes," the Africans are farcical: "[The fireman] was an improved specimen; he could fire up a vertical boiler. [...] to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat" (109). Achebe discusses Conrad's withholding the ability of speech from the majority of the African characters. The Africans are not humanized, as the whites are, having no dimension, no tone or color save an alien black. They are never personified; Conrad refers to them as "black shapes" or "mor...
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...ifferent standpoint, the story for the story's sake, much like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's mysteries which said nothing about society overtly at all. Unlike Mr. Doyle, Conrad's attempts to make social commentary on the pillaging of Africa immediately thrust him into the shoes of his character, and though he attempted to do good by shedding light on the matter, he made only a half-hearted attempt; not racism, merely a lack of strength of conviction.
Achebe, Chinua. "An Image of Africa," from Chant of Saints: a gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art & Scholarship, Michael Harper, ed. University of Illinois Press, 1979
Conrad, Joseph Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer, 1902. Signet Classic, New York 1997.
Oates, Joyce Carol. Introduction to Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer copyright The Ontario Review Inc., 1997.
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